Mean minxes: Girls' aggression isn't a joke

One teenage girl to another: “No offense, but you’re dressed really slutty today.” 
We call it catty, we call it mean. We characterize it as friendly sniping and expect the offending teen to back down, “I was just kidding!”
Rachel Simmons says it’s time to call this kind of interaction what it really is… aggression.
“This is a social problem that has long been silenced,” says the author of Odd Girl Out, a journalistic map of female aggression. “We have always treated it as meanness, a rite of passage, a phase, a developmental problem, but not as aggression.”
Simmons began researching the gender-specifics of bullying as a Rhodes scholar, but found that even at Oxford, that bastion of gentile scholarship, there was very little study on the topic. Returning to America to do her own investigation, Simmons began interviewing girls, young women, and mothers and concluded that female hostility has been socialized into a particularly damaging form.
Girls, Simmons says, are expected to eschew violence. Much of that expectation is the result of evolutionary trends. Early hominid females exhibited less violence than males, presumably to avoid orphaning their offspring.
Today’s girls are less likely to be thinking about preservation of their young when they choose their method of attack, but they still favor non-physical confrontations. Yet, any girl who has ever been ostracized in the schoolyard will tell you that notes and whispers are as hurtful as fists.
Simmons breaks girl bullying into three main types. There’s social aggression, wherein the victim’s self-esteem and social status are deliberately eroded (rumor mongering and smear campaigns are particularly effective).
Then there’s indirect aggression, typified by the above exchange, and crowned with the (accusing in itself) retort, “Oh come on, I was only joking.” Finally, everyone’s favorite (my four-year-old son included)– the “I’m not going to be your friend anymore if you don’t…” threat.
How serious a problem is girl bullying? Pretty serious for millions of thin-skinned young ladies, including the author, whose childhood memories inspired this book. But Simmons argues that the issue highlights a larger societal flaw. These girls, she argues, have been taught that name-calling, snubbing, and character sniping are acceptable forms of hostility, when they’re not.
“Girls need to be more direct,” concludes Simmons. “They need to assert their feelings in a natural, healthy manner.”
Or as my mother would say, “Don’t go to bed mad. Stay up and throw things.”
Just kidding.

Rachel Simmons has appeared on Oprah, Dateline, and the Today Show. She’s at the UVA Bookstore Thursday, April 24, at 8pm. 924-1073.

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